Telling the story of international aid

My novel explores an aid worker's dilemmas.

When we discuss foreign aid policy, we tend to talk about money. Everyone knows that New Labour boosted British expenditure on overseas aid, and that the coalition government is committed to increasing the sums even further, in particular by spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development from 2013. In fact, this one pledge rather dominates the whole debate.

Arguably, focusing on the cost and quantity of aid distracts attention from the more important, though much trickier, assessment of its quality and impact. The distance between Whitehall and the slums of the developing world could hardly be bigger, and it is hard to be confident that money allocated in London will actually bring about more education or better housing in Karachi, Manila or Nairobi. On the contrary, making things happen on the ground is an almost unimaginably complex challenge, and in the large, fascinating literature on development policy, some of the most compelling chapters concern precisely this gap between good intentions and carefully laid plans on the one hand, and unintended, occasionally catastrophic results on the other.

This is where my own interest in the world of foreign aid and NGOs started to take hold. My novel Ten Weeks in Africa tells the story of an Englishman, Ed Caine, who goes out to east Africa with his family to run a slum development project for a British NGO. The characters’ experiences are based on numerous accounts of such programmes. But as a novelist, I wasn’t coming to this literature on aid principally in search of policy solutions. I wanted to know how things worked out in practice, from a personal perspective, for those who had taken up the challenge of implementing development projects in poor, politically unstable states – and what happened to their colleagues, and the intended beneficiaries. 

I have not worked in overseas aid, and I am certainly no expert. I found the stories of men and women who spent years trying to bring about improvements in the lives of the world’s poorest people, moving and often humbling. But it was also remarkably discouraging. Again and again in these accounts, high hopes and good intentions are defeated by a combination of endemic corruption and the brute forces of nature. And the fact that such problems are essentially familiar to us and ought to be foreseeable, does not seem to make them any easier to deal with in practice, nor is it generally reflected in the way aid is discussed in the media.

Through Ed’s experiences, I wanted to explore the situation of an NGO manager who finds he is responsible for a project that, in the end, just cannot be made to work. To such an "international", speaking the local languages poorly, if at all, even understanding the motives of his colleagues and advisers is hard; and, especially where money and power are concerned, every action triggers negative consequences.

Even impeccably conceived projects can cause harm in practice. Drilling a well will benefit one village, but if the new boreholes cause the water-table to drop, the area of drought in the surrounding country will expand. Providing starving people with emergency supplies is a moral duty. But what if supplies are stolen by militias, enabling them to finance their war and so prolong the famine?

Such dilemmas are not unusual, as the literature on aid makes abundantly clear, and there is seldom an easy solution. I certainly do not provide answers in Ten Weeks in Africa. What my novel does offer, I hope, is an opening into a world which is both personal and realistically complex. Illuminating the dignity and interior life of human agents is one of the things good fiction can do well; and if that in itself does not solve the world’s problems, it can at least remind us of the measure by which all hoped-for solutions must ultimately be judged.

JM Shaw’s novel "Ten Weeks in Africa" is published by Sceptre (£17.99)

Aid workers in South Sudan (Photograph: Getty Images)
YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

“Real Housewives of Isis”: How do British Muslim women feel about the controversial BBC sketch?

The sketch show Revolting's satiricial take on jihadi brides has divided opinion.

“He can’t stop talking about his 40 virgins. Why can’t he be happy with me?” says a crying woman dressed in an abaya (a robe-like dress worn by some Muslim women) to her friend. “Ali bought me a new chain . . . which is eight-foot long, so I can almost get outside, which is great,” says an identically attired woman talking to camera in another sketch.

The scene flits to her wrestling with a chain attached to a cooker as she struggles to move.

Thus did the BBC announce the forthcoming arrival of “Real Housewives of Isis”, the first sketch in a new comedy series called Revolting. For some, the name of the show is apt. The trailer, which is just under two minutes long, caused uproar from certain sections on social and legacy media, with many describing it as offensive and Islamophobic. Others, however, held a different view. Satire, went the argument, should never be off limits, especially when directed at a group as heinous as the murderous death cult that is IS.

Sulekha Hassan, a British Muslim woman who lives and works in Hackney, tells me she is unhappy with the video. “I don’t think that the entire sketch is without any merits,” she says. “It succeeds in capturing the fact that these young women – they are depicted as very young in the sketch – who have gone to join Isis are no different to their non-Muslim peer group. The references to social media in particular really capture this well.”

But, she continues, “As a visibly Muslim woman who wears the abaya on occasion and the scarf [the clothes represented in the sketch], I felt offended that my choice of clothing was being inextricably linked with terrorism. I did not feel offended by it from a theological perspective at all . . . The reality is that visibly Muslim women have been physically and verbally attacked on our streets. This isn’t about us being overly sensitive, it is a product of the real dangers we face as visibly Muslim women.”

Indeed, Hassan felt strongly enough about the subject to write a piece on it. She believes it is problematic to poke fun at young women who may have been groomed by IS and who are then further subjugated by them, rather than the perpetrators themselves.

“It does not sit well with my sensibilities as a woman who is concerned for the welfare of women everywhere,” she tells me. “Isis are opportunistic death squads who reserve special cruelty for the vulnerable – including women, who they view as little more than expendables for their cause.”

But other Muslim women, like Sara Khan, director of the counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation Inspire and co-author of the book The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, take a different view. As a Muslim woman, does the video offend her? Her response is blunt as it is strident:

“As a counter-extremism campaigner who has delivered counter-narrative work against Isis, why would it offend me?” she asks in reply to my question. “What offends me more is the fact that there are Muslim women who endorse and support Isis’ patriarchy and subjugation of women, as opposed to a sketch mocking these very women.

“I’m more offended by people who, while well-intentioned in seeking to combat anti-Muslim prejudice, downplay and ignore the reality of Islamist extremism and its radicalising power on even teenage girls,” she adds. “The fact is, many British Isis female supporters have endorsed not only the oppression of Muslim women, but also of Yazidi women, they have glorified the killings of aid workers and non-Muslims, they have expressed the desire to commit acts of horrendous violence and revel in the brutality of it.

“If that doesn’t offend you more, then you clearly have little understanding about the reality of these women jihadists.”

The case of the “Real Housewives of Isis” centres on two distinct issues. The first is the video itself; the second is the outrage that greeted it. And here the differences within the community are plain to see. For Hassan, “the outrage is reflective of the political anxieties that Muslims face due to the climate at this moment in time. I have not seen Muslims arguing that their faith was being mocked – Isis after all are not representative of Islam, they just happen to dress and look like people who adhere to the faith.”

Khan, however, takes an entirely different and characteristically robust, line. “I’m not surprised by the faux outrage,” she says. “It seems in this day and age the issues we should be offended by we are not, and the issues we aren’t offended by are precisely the ones we should be.

“It is clear in some quarters that people are in denial that there are female Muslim terrorists and supporters. Rather than taking offence at that, they misguidedly attack a sketch mocking these women. What’s been amusing to see is how some have tied themselves in knots about this: on the one hand they argue Isis has nothing to do with Islam, but then they accuse the sketch of being ‘Islamophobic’. So which is it?”

I’ve spent the last year researching IS for my forthcoming book, focusing on propaganda and recruitment methods geared both towards men and women, as well as interviewing a female IS returnee in Paris. When I was trying to work out people’s motives for joining IS, Melanie Smith, a researcher and project coordinator for the Women and Extremism programme at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, told me: “I think this is less about grooming online. I don’t subscribe to that because it takes away the agency of the person being radicalised and speaks to gender stereotypes around Isis, with the press and government saying ‘innocent’ women are groomed while men are ‘angry’ jihadists. Our research shows that many women are just as aggressive and violent.”

I have also researched the reaction to IS in the Islamic Middle East for my book – and what emerges is a clear pattern of sustained mockery toward the group from the Muslim mainstream.

From Lebanese comedy songs that IS will lead Muslims into “an abyss like no other” to clips satirising the absurdity of IS’ literal readings of the Quran, lampooning the group is widespread. An especially popular example of the genre is a sketch showing three jihadists asking IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the correct way to urinate. Can one hold his penis? No, says al-Baghdadi, because that’s the finger they use to fire their weapons on jihad. Can they squat?, asks the other. No, because girls squat. How do we piss?, asks the third. Like this says al-Baghdadi and they all urinate in their pants. The sketch ends with them all taking their urine-stained clothes to the dry cleaners.

The “Real Housewives of Isis” lacks a degree of nuance, but it does carry on a tradition long-established in the Muslim world of satire and ridicule. But whether Muslim women in the UK are comfortable about this tradition moving West-wards remains to be seen. Mockery might not be the ammunition that will ultimately defeat IS, but by being outraged at this sketch, we may be overlooking a powerful weapon at our disposal in this effort.